Grey shouldn’t be a color.  It’s a void.

The grey sky hides the sun and hints of coming storms.  It can make a day feel lost; it won’t let the rain fall, but refuses to let the sun shine, giving no hope to the weary branches of a tree or the thirsty grass.  The grey is empty, not darkness or light.

Even as I thought this, I scolded my criticizing thoughts. Maybe I just didn’t feel like wearing grey today.

I pulled out the drawer, and looked at the outfit I would be wearing.  The same grey outfit everyone would be wearing today.  I glared at the outfit through the dust floating in the lamp light as I laid it on my dresser.

Nope.  It was definitely a void.

I had begun to get dressed when I first heard the footsteps running, then gliding across the floor right outside my door.  A fast knock on the door followed by a giggle and running feet made me feel warmth for the first time this morning.  My thoughts wandered out of the grey and strayed into the innocent, childlike wonder of the boys who ran past my door.

They would not have to wear grey.  We wore grey to symbolize sorrow and hope: the black mixed with the light, but the light never being able to burn the darkness out.  We just mixed enough courage and skill to create a way to save a few lives.  But the little boys who ran down the stairs didn’t know how powerful the darkness was.  They would wear white, like the other children; oblivious to the fact that while we were brave and hopeful, we were losing a war.

I went to my desk.  I wrote a few sentences about the growing flowers, how I missed the sunbeam that slowly traveled across my wall at dawn, and the jealousy of innocence.  I sketched a picture of the arches on the page next to it.  I should have written a few words about the significance of today, but I decided that I would write later.  I tried to shake off the thoughts that weren’t meant for me.  Today was not about me, or the children downstairs.

In just a few hours, the twenty-six girls who had trained for a chance to be hero would be given a different name; a name that would define them forever.

Protector.

This significant event was marked with both somber ceremony and elaborate celebration, a schism of emotions only a few truly   felt.  For decades, the Territory had gathered all of its members to honor the Protectors that were chosen each year, followed by a celebration of our resistance against the Republic that had attacked us: mind, body and soul.  The wound sustained was too deep not to leave a scar.  A victim normally choses to ignore their scar.  But when they look at it, think about it, and trace it with their fingers, they can feel queasy, as if it was a fresh wound.  That’s how I felt today.  The feet ran by my door again, followed by the louder feet of their older sister.  I broke the silence of my room.

“Enough.”

Think about it after the ceremony, I told myself silently, realizing that talking to myself out loud was strange even for me. I attempted to redirect my thoughts.  The ceremony would remain the same: a review of our history and the reason for the Protectors followed by naming the Protectors of the 188th generation.  Some activities began right after the ceremony, but the festival began after the feast.  We could never afford the shuttle tickets to and from our local station.  We had to walk the five miles to the station in the valley.  The festival lasted too late to make that trek at nighttime.

When I was younger, I had stayed for the festival once.  I begged and pleaded and promised I would run home afterwards and wouldn’t whine about being tired.  I still had crystal clear memories of that night.  My father had laughed at each of my over-excited reactions.  I remembered the strange details that only a child would, like how many lights were on each attraction or the name of the doll I could win at the prize table.  As I had promised, I walked the entire five miles home without complaining.  I was exhausted and sore, but determined to ensure my trip to the festival the next year.

But the next year, Olivia came.  By the time she could have walked the five miles after the long day, Dylan came.  And he came with Richard.  Having three siblings was rare, so I was expected to be grateful and never complain about them.  Every mischievous behavior was a miracle.  Twins were unheard of in our community, even with the Shield Vaccine and Shield Filters working to keep the water clear of the Serum.  People had heard of twins, but they were like fairies or talking animals: a myth.  When the Council heard that my mother was pregnant with twins, they had paid a Specialist to come out every week until she delivered.  It had caused a stir in our everyday lives, and made our family famous in the Territory.

Today’s events would have the same effect, but for very different reasons.  Our family name was going to be spoken again, by many strangers.  But I wished it wouldn’t have to be.

This year, the Outskirts finally had someone who had attended and ranked in the Academy for Prospective Protectors.  Protectors were chosen by the Council on the firm foundation of divine intervention.  While they could choose anyone, almost every Protector for the last century had trained from age twelve in espionage, combat, medicine, and history at the Academy.  There were about thirty girls accepted into a class each year.  But my mind was only on one member of this years class.  Her name was Megan, and although I’d known her in my grammar school for a long time, she rarely talked to me.  I didn’t take it personally.  I tried to justify it.  She lived far away from me.  She liked different things.  She was athletic, and I was one of the few in the arts track.  Add in the fact that she barely talked to anyone, and there was no real reason for me to be offended that she didn’t talk to me…except one.

She was my cousin.

Megan was usually mentioned in a story that would surface after dinner, while dishes were being scrubbed and little Olivia’s asked my mother when she lost her first tooth, if she ever fell out of a tree, or if she had any sisters. That question created joy mixed with pain, a smile with eyes glossed but never crying.  My mother had one sister: Megan’s mother, who held Megan for only four minutes before she left this world.  My mother was crushed with her loss, but she had to move past her grief to care for me and to help Henry, Megan’s father, with a new baby.

But what was simple became complicated by the most erosive sin: jealousy.  Henry asked his mother to move in and care for the baby.   His mother resented my mother for living through childbirth.  After Olivia and the twins, his mother retreated even more.  What should’ve been an opportunity to become a strong family turned into awkward strangers with a shared grief.  So Megan and I were just that: awkward friends.  There were a few times a year that I was reminded we were family.  On Rosemary Day, when we would all give a flower or herb to someone who has lost a loved one, I would pay half my allowance for the perfect flower for Megan: a pink rose for someone who had lost their mother.  Megan always picked a dozen violets for me, who had lost my aunt, and she always wrapped the lavender in lace for my mother, who had lost her sister.  I would spend the rest of Rosemary Day searching for more lavender.  The lavender was the same every year.  Held with open hands.  Gazed at in silence while doing dishes. Dried up on a windowsill.  Placed in a tiny jar.  It created unspoken grief that haunted us all, for a person I never met but never stopped missing.

After her grandmother passed away, Megan was alone most of the time.  Her strength, solitude, and determination ensured she was accepted into the Academy by age eleven.  It tore Henry apart.  His only goal, keeping her safe, was undone by her willingness to accept her place at the Academy.  But at some point, he changed his verbage.  It was unhealthy at times, as he would joke about her taking down Sentries and saving hundreds of pregnant women and Unnecessaries, an over-exaggeration to keep his worst fears at bay.

There was a rhythmic knock at the door.  It was Olivia’s way of playing a game to tell me breakfast was ready.  Her knock always sounded like a song, and I had to guess what it was and sing it the way down the stairs.

Down the stairs I sang, “Row, row, row your boat.”

Giggles.  Eggs.  And…

“Is that bacon?”  I asked in shock.  Mom smiled in response, and I figured dad had probably let her splurge a little; small comforts to keep her worst fears about Megan under control.

“I know!  The only reason why is because-”

I didn’t the reason why.  I never would.

My dad burst in the room and there were the usual hugs and screams and kisses that made the beautiful mess of family.  I turned to my breakfast at the table as they mobbed him, focused on the food in front of me until Richard yelled out a question.

“What are those tickets for?”

Both my mom and I spun around so quickly it must have looked comical.  My dad grinned, probably because he was getting exactly the reaction he wanted from the six shuttle tickets in his hand.

They were orange.  That meant round trip to the local station.

“How in the world…” mom started.

“Sweetie, you wouldn’t believe it!” he started, ignoring Dylan who was straining to see the tickets.  “Last night, the prep team from the Council came by the shop to get food for the feast tonight.  They wanted venison because they wanted food unique to each region this year as part of the feast.   They bought ten bucks and two does!”

Mom’s eyes widened, both surprised and suspicious.  We always had enough money, but only enough.  I always imagined that she saw moments like this in her mind as if there was a storm raging with worries like rain, with thunder that cried, “Six mouths to feed.

Dad knew the wind had picked up in her mind, because he got back on his knees and said, “It’s not just what they bought, sweetie.  They were budgeted a certain amount of money for the portion of meat, and instead of paying me the price on the tags, they gave me the two thousand they had.”

I coughed a snort out of disbelief.  Mom let out the smallest laugh before she put her hand up to her mouth, forgetting she had no real reason to stop it.  Olivia screamed and tackled my dad to the floor.  The younger ones took to giggling like crazy as he tickled them, even though they had no clue that we had gotten about twice as much money for that amount of game.  I temporarily forgot my age and jumped on the pile.  He kissed me on the cheek in the midst of the chaos.  While our home was happy, this was different.  This was the bliss that made mom ignore us running in the house, left me too excited to finish breakfast, left hands unwashed, chores undone; it was like there was too much happiness to consume.

We ran upstairs three minutes later, bacon in hand.  I got my pack, my journal, and two extra pencils.  I hoped that maybe in the midst of it, I could watch something worth writing down.  I turned to the last page I had written on, and realized I only had about ten pages left.  A thought fluttered, and I silenced it out of habit.  I only got a journal for Christmas and wrote in every inch of it.  Each year, I ran out of space earlier despite writing smaller, but today was different.  Maybe today I would get a different response.  I ran downstairs and put on the most charming voice I could manage.

“Daddy, you know I just noticed my journal…is really,  really full, and it’s good because I’ve been writing so much lately, but there are only ten pages left, and I thought that maybe since we’re headed to town…”

He started laughing.  Mom shook her head.

I stood there already scared that this request was going nowhere.

“Well,” mom said, “at least you waited five minutes.”

“What?” I asked.

Dad said, “Your brothers and sister had much less self-control and asked for about every toy and book under the sun about three minutes ago.  We said everyone may get one thing.  And I already knew what you would pick.”

There were hugs, kisses, more “thank-yous,” a  few more cheers, running feet to the shuttle station, and then restless legs of twins jumping up and down on the inner platform. A lot of people were coming to look at the twins, to say how cute they were and to marvel at Olivia’s curls and cute smile.

I was invisible, like usual.  There was a time I would’ve been jealous, upset just to be the wallflower.  Over time, I realized that I enjoyed being unnoticed.  I started to see the tiny details that my obscurity could afford me.  I could see so much beauty just in writing it down:  the significant wrapped in the trivial.  An old woman twirling her wrinkled finger through Olivia’s curls, my mom’s smile at the boys’ excitement, a tickle that made Richard lose his breath, a handshake between friends, a whispered comfort from a friend that made my mom fight back tears.

I also saw an indistinguishable expression of one man, an expression that was too many emotions at once.

Fear, worry, a strange pride, joy, loss, fatigue.

He was waiting on the other side of the platform.  He was the man whose daughter would probably be named a Protector today.

I ran up without thinking of what I would say.  I thought with a tinge of worry that I might regret saying the wrong thing, but that I’d regret silence more.  What would I say?  Congratulations?  No, it wasn’t an accomplishment.  She was being chosen to throw herself into life-threatening situations.  Sorry?  But no one should ever apologize for what she was doing.

He saw me coming as I called, “Henry!” and to my surprise, he opened his arms and I crashed into them.  Today was not any day to be stingy or second-guess any act of love.  As he hugged me, I felt his muscles shake even under the tight grip.

Grasping for something I could never give: anything that would make today and the next year bearable.

He released, and I couldn’t help myself from asking the question.

“So, is it a sure thing?”

“Well,” and some pride did leak from his voice, “she ranked 12th out of the thirty this year.  And they are sending a private shuttle for me, so…”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I said, as casually as I could.

But I found an icky feeling swirl up from my stomach.  Despite pushing every rational reason aside for me not to be attached, my heart ached.

I couldn’t be casual, so I was truthful.  “Well, a private shuttle is nice.  I guess you won’t have to deal with a bunch of people saying awkward things.”

“Yeah, I think that’s the idea.”  He looked off in the distance and nodded.  “Some people found a chance anyway.  How long has it been since you’ve seen her?  Has it been since she left for the Academy?”

“Yeah, I think,” I said to myself.  “Four years.”

He was beaming as he said, “You should see how much you two look alike now.”

There was a noise behind us: the shuttle had arrived.  It was a small hovercraft, but it didn’t need rails like the transports we were taking.  The small shuttles were only used by the Council and the Protectors.  It made everything that was happening feel more real.

Henry had seen my parents from a distance and waved.  My mom blew a kiss and waved along with the twins, Olivia yelled hello, and my father held his hand up without moving, almost like a gesture of faith.

−I realized I was the only one, maybe the last one to talk to my uncle before he sat under the Arches today to hear his daughter’s name called out.  As he slid back the door to the hovercraft and got inside, I yelled out the only thing I could think to say.

“I think that she’s brave.”

He turned around and looked at me curiously as I continued, trying to keep my voice from cracking.

“She’s really brave.  Much braver than me, brave enough to go anywhere her heart leads her.  And I think that’s beautiful.”

The hovercraft charged up and revved louder.  The door closed slowly, but I saw Henry look at me through teary eyes, slightly creased from the smile on his face.  One of the copilots yelled they were ready.  The door closed, and I backed up on the platform.  I felt a warm rush of air, and then they were gone.  Henry had been crying and smiling, which oddly enough, made me sure I had said the right thing.

I heard an engine rumbling lower and lower, only to turn to see our shuttle coming to the platform.  I clumsily snagged my bag, journal, and pen.  My mom was waving me on as I sprinted to them.  But I slowed down and turned back to where Henry had just departed.  My daydreaming mind wandered to thoughts of the Academy, of running, breathing, and living for a purpose beyond this small community and hoping for a chance to go to the festival.  Suddenly the excitement from this morning seemed misguided and shallow.  But I dragged myself back to reality.

Being a Protector was out of my scope; it always had been.  I was the girl who was good, but never good enough− not brave enough, fast enough, strong enough, smart enough to be a Protector.

They never picked girls like me.  Usually, I never cared, except for this one moment.  I knew it wouldn’t last long; it was being pushed away by logic and fear, as the wind from the shuttle blew on me.

I was mad they weren’t choosing me today.

And I didn’t know why.

 

 

Chapter 2